Doctrine. I have been doing it wrong.

Doctrine in the Church is important. I am a fan. The doctrines of the Church have helped me better understand the nature of sin, the salvific work of Jesus Christ, the function of the Holy Spirit and how the Church is to be in relationship with the world. I am going back to school in fact to study doctrine, specifically the doctrines come out of the late antiquity period.

In my studies thus far I have discovered something about doctrine that has deeply affected how I understand that conversations around doctrine. I am embarrassed that I had not seen this before, and in many ways am disappointed in myself for not seeing it sooner.


So what is the discovery? Here it is:

Doctrine is the point of entry.

That is it. Doctrine is the point of entry into the conversation and understanding of the Christian faith. So why is this “discovery” worth noting? It is because I the primary problem I have had with theologians who cite doctrine is doctrine is used as a point of arrival.

It is like when you have a math book in school and all the answers are in the back of the book. There are many ways to get to the solution that is provided in the back of the book, but what is important is that you get the correct answer. Doctrines are often treated as an answer in the back of the book, and you can have many ways to get there, but ultimately you have to come to already stated position.

For example, Christians have a doctrine of the virgin birth. There are many people who will work to prove this doctrine, because the doctrine is the point of arrival - not the point of entry. When doctrines are points of arrival, then we have to defend and prove them. When doctrines are points of entry then we discover more than the doctrine teaches.

If the virgin birth is not the point of arrival, but the point of entry then the questions change. Rather than asking “how did the virgin birth happen?”, we get to ask “what sort of claim is being made about Jesus through the doctrine of the virgin birth?” Oddly enough when I ask the second question, I come to a deeper understanding of God in Jesus than I do when I just search for reasons to justify the virgin birth.

Doctrines are important, because they invite the disciple to enter into the transforming story of God. The irony is when we insist doctrines are the point of arrival, many discover those same doctrines as their point of exit.

Boundary Confusion In The UMC

Boundaries and Barriers

Boundaries and Barriers

Within the UMC there is much talk on line about the role of boundaries. There are some who consider the election of Bishop Oliveto a breach in the boundaries of the Book of Discipline. There are others who feel that the organization of the Wesley Covenant Association is a breach of boundaries. The interesting thing to me is that both groups are correct - these are a break in boundaries. What is sometimes missed in all the discussion (including in my own thinking) over these broken boundaries is we may be confusing boundaries for barriers.

Boundaries are those things that are set up to guide and protect. They are generally good things to follow. For instance, if you see a line on the road, it is generally a good idea to not cross it. Boundaries also have a flexibility built into them that makes them easier to uphold in our lives. Sticking with the road metaphor, those lines can be redirected and even redrawn to accommodate wider vehicles or road construction. Boundaries are not the same as barriers because boundaries have an appropriate permeability to them.

Barriers are not permeable. These are like those concrete walls put on the side of the road to ensure that no one can cross over them. Barriers not only protect us from harm but also cause harm if violated. Which is why barriers are more obstructive and obstructive than boundaries. It seems that at the heart at some of the matters in the UMC, there is confusion on what is a boundary and what is a barrier.

Jesus ran into this when he was confronted by the religious leaders of his time. He was told that he was violating laws which they saw as barriers but Jesus saw as boundaries. You should not eat on the Sabbath was a barrier to some but a boundary to Jesus. God, not man, can forgive sin was a barrier for some but a boundary for Jesus. Death was a barrier for some but Jesus shows us it is boundary. 

Boundaries are important to be sure, but they are not the same as barriers. While both are designed with protection in mind, it seems like we are in the deepest mess when we confuse boundaries and barriers. 

(Update note - Thank you to W.J. who helped point out my own confusion in the original post where I mislabeled boundaries and barriers. It just goes to show that even when we think about it, there can be boundary confusion.)  

Law, Prophets and Wisdom - the order matters

Recently it was shared with me that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is divided into three sections: Law, Prophets and Wisdom. This was not news to me when I heard it, and it may not be news to you as well. What was news to me was that the order matters - Law then Prophets then Wisdom. The order matters because it reflects the maturation process. 

When we are younger we need clear boundaries to help guide us in ways to grow. We need the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" because as children we may not know what can harm us or the community. Every person that works with children knows this. When we are in this stage, if we do not have clear boundaries then we and society can run into chaos (see the biblical book of Genesis which takes place prior to the "Law").

As we grow we begin to question, push and challenge the Law that we received. This is sometimes seen as rebellion, and sometimes it is. Many times however this stage is one like the prophets who call out hypocrisy, call us to live what we said how we were going to live, get back to the roots/cause/why as to what we are doing. We see this in adolescents and teenagers. This is also the stage when we think we know the right way and that everyone else is "doing it wrong". The Prophet stage at it's best helps us know how to break the rules properly and at it's worst this stage can lead to resentment and arrogance. 

Finally (hopefully) we mature into the Wisdom stage. This is the only stage that is not a given in life. It is a given that you will have people tell you what to/not to do. It is a given that you will challenge those around you. It is not a given that we will mature into a stage that incorporates and transcends both stages.  While the Law comes with birth and the Prophet comes with growing up, Wisdom comes through intentional practice and learning. In the Judeo-Christian scripture it says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Put another way, humility is the beginning of wisdom. 

While these stages are on a fluid continuum - we can progress and regress in our maturation - it is the work of the spiritual life to move our roots toward wisdom. If we want to change the world, we cannot decree it or shout at others we can only model it.

That is where the rub is, if we model ways that we desire others to be then we have to be humble - a way of being that is driven by forgiveness and love than judgement and truth. I fear that our time is motivated to live like the later more than the former.